Biden administration to send 1,500 troops to US-Mexico border for expected migrant surge

The Biden administration is expecting to dispatch 1,500 active-duty service members to the US-Mexico border to assist in handling the large influx of migrants expected when pandemic-era border restrictions expire next week, according to three Biden administration sources.

The plan for deployment of active-duty troops is part of the administration’s preparation for the end of public health restrictions imposed by the Trump administration at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked a rarely-used section of US law known as Title 42, which allows the US Surgeon General to “prohibit ... the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places as he shall designate” if he finds it necessary to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in the US.

The Trump-era policy, which has allowed border officials to rapidly expel most migrants who cross the US-Mexico border before they can have a chance to claim asylum, was championed by immigration hardliners but has been criticised by Democrats and immigration activists as inhumane and ineffective.

The policy has remained in place despite Biden administration efforts to rescind it due to a court order sought by a group of Republican-led states. In December, the Supreme Court allowed the Title 42 order to remain in place through February, and the Biden administration later announced that it would sunset the policy when pandemic-era emergency declarations expire on 11 May.

Because large numbers of migrants who’ve been effectively blocked from claiming asylum under Title 42 would now be permitted to make those claims, officials say the troops being deployed to the border will be tasked with handling administrative and support work so federal law enforcement agencies charged with securing the border can spend their time in the field.

Although an 1878 law, the Posse Comitatus Act, prohibits the US military from undertaking law enforcement responsibilities under most circumstances, the use of active duty service members to perform administrative and support tasks at the border is permissible. Biden administration officials have confirmed that the troops being sent to the border would not engage in any law enforcement work.

The Biden administration is also rolling out a number of new policies to deal with the expected migrant surge, including what officials have described as “improved access to lawful pathways to the United States for asylum seekers”.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced the establishment of “regional processing centres” in South and Central American nations to be operated by international aid organisations. A senior administration official said personnel at the regional centres will act to “expedite pre-screening of individuals for lawful pathways to the United States” with interviews to determine if they are eligible to be referred for “refugee resettlement or other lawful pathways such as parole programmes, family reunification or existing labour pathways”.

The new programme will be modeled along the lines of an existing Biden administration initiative to process asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti, but individuals from those four nations will continue to be handled by the existing programme, under which asylum seekers who are found to be ineligible for asylum after entering at the US-Mexico border will be returned to Mexico.

The Associated Press contributed reporting